Thursday, June 18, 2009

Legal vs. natural rights

Thomas Jefferson talked about "natural" and "inalienable rights" which came from Nature, and as a kid I never really understood what he meant: a right, I reasoned, is always granted by someone and must by acknowledged by them in order to take effect. If I give you the right to buy oil from me at $80 a barrel--a right which is worth nothing unless oil starts trading at higher than $80 a barrel--that right came from me and will be enforced by me. Talking about self-existing rights makes no sense. Suppose I claimed I had a "right" to medical treatment for my cancer (if I had cancer). From whom does such a right come? If someone refuses to treat me, because I can't pay them, to whom do I go for recourse? Such a right is no right at all, it's just nonsense.

There's another sense in which we sometimes use the term "right," though, and it basically comes down to this: if intelligent and right-thinking people[1] would universally find no fault with you in a certain course of action, then you have the right to take that course of action. For instance, you have the right to marry someone you're actually attracted to[2]. Some people might fault you for holding out, but no celestial beings will[3]. If we wanted to draw a distinction between these two usages of the word right, I propose that we call the first kind "legal rights," granted to you by some other entity, and "natural rights," because I think that's what Thomas Jefferson pretty much meant by his use of the term. To say that man has a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," is not to say that anyone is required to GIVE them to you--inalienable rights cannot be given or taken, else they'd not be inalienable. Rather, it is to assert that one can claim that for one's self, or seek to claim them, with a clear conscience, no matter what or who may claim otherwise.


[1] I.e. all celestial beings.

[2] And yes, this is one of the reasons I think about rights sometimes. There's a part of my psyche that still feels bad about dying a bachelor, eventually, but I really do have the right not to marry someone I don't want to marry. Plus, it's impossible to marry anyone against your will anyway, at least in the temple.

[3] Or if they do, then by definition you DON'T have that right. It certainly wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong, or even the thousandth. But I'm pretty sure you actually do have that right, because it's testified of all over the scriptures and throughout the gospel.

Rock Is Dead. Long Live Scissors!

"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

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